The Role of Botanic Gardens in Conservation Education: the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens and ex situ Conservation

Andrew Smith

Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens
Domain, Hobart TAS 7000, Tasmania, Australia


Botanic gardens have a vital role in conservation education. Their education programmes should be an intrinsic component of their species conservation programmes They also have a responsibility to aim to develop a general conservation ethic, not just for plant conservation. So the aim of a botanic gardens conservation education programme should be to produce an emotive response, based on understanding, that results in a commitment to act personally. One of the strengths of botanic gardens is their ability to involve people directly in growing and replanting threatened species. Botanic gardens provide the means for the community to do their bit for conservation. The Royal Tasmania Botanical Gardens plant conservation programme is used as an example of an integrated conservation plan.


In this paper I hope to demonstrate the vital role that botanic gardens can play in community education for the conservation of biodiversity, and the need for that effort to have a broad environmental awareness aim.

I would like to begin by taking you on a journey to look at the need for nature conservation and conservation education.

So ... everyone, get comfortable, because you are about to leave on an adventure into space. Imagine you are seated in a space shuttle ready to launch into space and travel to the outer edge of our Solar System.

From the window of the shuttle you can see tall mountains clothed in forests, a river flowing down a steep valley past the launch site.

You can see a majestic eagle circling high in the sky searching for unprotected prey on the ground below, and a number of herbivorous animals are wandering the grassy areas near the launch site.

You can also see village houses in the distance with a small area of crops creating a vivid green patch amid the darker green of the forest trees.

Hold on, its time for lift off ... 5 ... 4 ... 3 ... 2 ... 1 ... Blast off ... As your shuttle lifts into the sky, the animals and birds disappear from view, the river becomes a thin silver line snaking through the rough green carpet of forest ... the mountains become small bumps on the landscape ... higher and higher the shuttle travels and as you pass the Moon you can look back at the planet you have left ... its a large round blue ball with patches of green ... white clouds scud across the surface ... a blue ball floating in the blackness of space .... now your shuttle accelerates out past Venus, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto until you have reached the very edge of the Solar System.

Beyond here is black ... cold ... and lonely emptiness.

Turn your ship to look back along the line of planets we have passed. Of all those planets, only the distant blue Earth has life, only Earth can support life, it is the only planet that we can return to and survive on at the end of this journey. One Earth, one Earth only. Somewhere between 30 million and 100 million species depend on that planet for their existence, they have nowhere else to go either. We are alone in this Solar System, probably in this Galaxy, and possibly in many galaxies.

So let us head back down to our home planet and consider what is happening on the planet Earth ... down past the other planets, past the Moon, down through the clouds and back here into this hall.

Down to Earth

Well what is happening on this unique planet?

At the moment, 1 in 10 of the known plant species in the world are considered to be threatened.

60 000 higher plant species may be in danger of extinction or serious genetic erosion by the middle of the next century. Nearly half the world's species of animals and microorganisms will be destroyed or severely threatened over the next 25 years.

On a global level, not since the end of the Cretaceous Era some 65 million years ago, has biological diversity loss been so rapid and so great as it is now. A section of rainforest the size of ten city blocks disappears every minute.

25 billion tonnes of topsoil are washed or blown from the world's farmhands every year, with about 77 billion tonnes being lost in total. In 1980, degradation of cropland by erosion, waterlogging, and salting was resulting in the irreversible loss of some 6 million hectares world-wide each year. In addition 21 million hectares turns into desert each year.

The entire world climate is set to change in a way that will significantly alter the lifestyle of most organisms on the planet, caused by burning fossil fuels that increase the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. The greenhouse effect constitutes the most serious disturbance of the biosphere yet caused by humanity. To compensate for the build up of carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere it will be necessary to plant, and successfully grow to maturity, 250 billion trees world-wide in the next ten years.

All these problems are presently impacting directly on the world's plant diversity and so therefore adversely affect the likely success for plant conservation work carried out by botanic gardens.

Many Australians, although aware of this type of catastrophe, believe the destruction is all happening somewhere else, partly as a result of media which tell us much about the damage occurring in other places, while concentrating on highlighting the unique, pristine and remarkable natural environment at home. Well, in order to be cured, it is necessary to first admit the problem.

In reality, Australians have one of the worst records for species destruction. We have wiped out at least 18 mammal species and 85-100 plant species since British settlement in 1788, compared to 27 plant species in Europe and 74 in the USA over the same 200 years.

We have 3250 plant species listed as rare or threatened. That is about 1 in 6 plant species. Less than 15% of these species are considered to be adequately protected in reserves.

Soil erosion is presently occurring across Australia at a rate 10 times the natural rate. In areas such as the Burdekin catchment in the State of Queensland, an area of 15 million hectares supporting a large percentage of Queensland's cattle farming, soil erosion is occurring at a rate 50 times natural levels. Soil degradation in Australia, including wind and water erosion, salinisation, acidification and loss of soil structure, is estimated to cost $1.2 billion each year in lost agricultural productivity. Perhaps as much as 60% of farmland requires treatment for soil degradation.

More than 41 million hectares of forest have been destroyed in Australia, including 75% of the nation's rain-forests.

In Tasmania, 25% of the State is protected in conservation reserves of some kind. Most of that has been given the ultimate status of World Heritage Area. Unfortunately, in the 190 years prior to this green awakening, we had lost 90% of our grassy woodlands.

On an island State of just 100 000 sq km, with a total people population of just 520 000, we have 136 plant species presently listed as rare or threatened. Some 20% of our plant species are endemic to the State.

In Tasmania we live in fear of skin cancer due to excessive exposure to ultra-violet rays pouring through a hole in the ozone layer, covering an area three times the size of Australia, which periodically opens up over our heads - caused by the use of chlorofluorocarbons, which ironically have been banned from use in pressure sprays and plastic products in Tasmania for a number of years.

Unfortunately, although a developed country, Australia is not well endowed with botanic gardens. We have 27 gardens, on a land mass of 7.7 million square kilometres (that is 285 000 square kilometres each) with 20 000 vascular plant species. There are also approximately 50 000 non-vascular species in Australia, of which little is known. 80% of the Australian flora is endemic. Tasmania has 1630 higher plant species, 20% of which are endemic to the State, and just one botanic garden.

So obviously, world-wide, for some species we need conservation reserves, ex situ living collections, ex situ propagation and then reintroductions, and community education, support and action - an integrated approach to plant conservation, if we are to reverse the steady march by species to extinction and overcome the habit of environmental abuse.

The Educational Programme

The education programmes in botanic gardens are important components of what botanic gardens can provide to the plant conservation cause.

It is estimated that 150 million people visit botanic gardens around the world each year.

As stated in the Botanic Gardens Conservation Strategy: "In view of the many millions of members of the public who visit botanic gardens each year, it is important that very strenuous efforts are made to interest and if possible involve them in the conservation role of the gardens". It would also, in view of what is happening to the planet, and the intersecting effects of environmental degradation, seem prudent to put a concerted effort into instilling a general conservation ethic in that audience.

Education in botanic gardens should not simply be the labelling of plants, or just letting the public know what the botanic gardens are doing. It does not have as its prime objective to help create the climate that will allow more adequate resources to be allocated to conserving plant diversity, although this will be a spin-off of an effective awareness programme.

Conservation education in botanic gardens should have as its prime objective the reduction of the number of species that will in future require intervention against extinction.

We are aiming for the development of appropriate attitudes, and concern for the whole natural environment, resulting in the desire to contribute positively through lifestyle change and direct action to solve the problems with which we are faced. The importance of personal actions and consumer choices in shaping our society is often underestimated. The world is shaped as a result of an accumulation of the daily decisions of ordinary people.

A look at what has caused plant extinctions in Australia in the past confirms this: 44 species from agricultural activities, 34 species from grazing, 3 species as a result of urban and industrial development and 4 species from weed competition. The threats to those endangered species presently facing extinction include 57 threatened by roadworks, another 57 by competition from weeds, 85 due to their existing low numbers, 17 as a result of horticultural collection, 7 by introduced disease and 3 species by railway development, (Leigh and Briggs 1992). It can be seen that in the majority of cases, the decisions and actions of people have impacted on the species of the world which are now extinct or threatened, and are now the subject of attention from botanic gardens. It is only through reducing the pressure that we can stem the flow of extinctions.

The aim of changing lifestyles raises a curious dilemma when looking at how an education programme should, for example, approach explaining the importance of plants. Many programmes emphasise the useful value of plants - we build houses, make medicines, make fires, make clothes, gaze in raptured wonderment at them, etc. The Pacific yew (Taxus brevifolia) in Canada, is a wonderful example of the secrets locked up in the genetic banks of ancient forests. What better argument for plant conservation than the anti-cancer drug Taxol which is produced from the bark of the yew? Or the potential anti-Aids drug being developed from Australia's blackbean tree?

However, it can be a contradictory argument - that is, we need to save species so that people can use them - care must be taken that this approach does not encourage a community of resource junkies, people who believe that the natural environment is theirs to conquer and use, and that the only good plant is one that can be used by humankind. The groves of Pacific yews that have been stripped of their precious bark by poachers, and their continuing destruction during forestry operations, demonstrates that the utilization argument alone is not sufficient. One of the important understandings we need to develop is that we share the planet with other life forms which have a right to exist independently of any benefit to us.

Development of a conservation attitude must come first, so that wise choices can then be made about using plants.

It is necessary to understand the importance of plants as the foundation for all life on Earth:

Unfortunately this foundation of life now has one in ten of its bricks eroding fast, already has many bricks missing, and desperately requires some active preventative maintenance. Everybody in the community has a role to play in this repair work.

Like a full-back in a football team, the Conservation Strategy, and consequently botanic gardens generally, concentrates on tackling the worst cases of endangerment first, taking on the species that have already slipped through all the other defensive moves.

From an educational point of view it is necessary to create a concern for the natural environment as a whole before the possible extinction of one species in the system can be approached as, and understood to be, an important issue. If the proper base of understanding and empathy is in place, concern for endangered species and a desire to act will often be an automatic follow-on from the education programme. We will have tackled the species before it begins its run downfield.

It is important that once a desire to act, to begin the repair work, is awakened, we should provide opportunities to do so. "Action at a local level is often the first step toward a global solution".

One of the great strengths of botanic gardens is that we have the facilities and expertise to involve people in the positive action of growing plants as part of their personal effort to reverse the trends of:

The educational aspects of conservation should be seen to be as important as the physical collection and holding of endangered species in a garden collection, because the educational role is predominantly one of prevention through the creation of a concerned and aware community.

Recovery plans for individual species obviously have a beneficial effect for that individual species. They also provide a unique opportunity for environmental education - that is the opportunity for people to act personally to rectify a specific environmental issue. Recovery projects are inspirational events because they do not just prevent the problem from getting worse, they actually make the situation better! However, it is all very well for botanic gardens, universities and conservation departments to go out, collect , grow and replant threatened species - but if the local community is not sympathetic to what is being undertaken then the long-term success of replanting is undermined. As Mark Bovey wrote in the Tropical Africa Botanic Garden Bulletin for December 1990:

"Wherever you live, conservation of natural resources only succeeds when the local people understand the need for, and positively support, the measures designed to achieve that result."

This is where another strength of botanic gardens is important. We are not generally considered to be threatening institutions. Gardens are places of beauty and peace. We are not often wanting to proclaim "landgrab" reserves. We do not threaten traditional lifestyles, only enhance them by repairing barren land, conserving traditional plant medicines, saving staple food crops and so on. We can involve people in our efforts to improve the plight of species. We can listen to and respond to the needs of local communities when designing recovery programmes. We are "people-friendly" as well as "plant-friendly".

Any species recovery plans should therefore always take the opportunity to involve the local community, schools or special interest groups in the activity. The earlier these groups are involved, the better.

Community involvement in conservation programmes in botanic gardens changes the environmental debate from "hands off" to "get your hands dirty and do something about it yourself." Many millions of people in the world consider gardening to be an essential personally creative pastime. Many millions more depend on their ability to grow plants to ensure their personal survival. Involving the community can tap into this affinity with plants by allowing people to plant alongside the botanical and horticultural experts.

This personal involvement is more likely to inspire some of the lifestyle changes that are required if environmental abuse is to be changed to environmental sustainability.

For an education programme to be successful in the areas spoken about there has to be, in many cases, a change of attitude within botanic gardens management and staff.

Julia Willison of the BGCI stated, also in the Tropical Africa Gardens Bulletin: "Educators need to have a higher profile in botanic gardens and arboreta if the conservation of the world's biodiversity is to be effective" (Willison 1990).

A commitment to giving education programmes a high priority in practical ways is necessary, such as opening the living collection and seed banks to the education programmes for propagation classes and community planting projects, by including educators in the planning of new developments, by developing areas in the garden specifically for conservation education activities, and by informing and involving the community as a matter of course when undertaking conservation work in their area. This of course requires the education programme to be out in, working with, and understanding the local community, and not restricted to the physical environment of the garden.

Education programmes should be designed to lead on and direct participants to other environmentally friendly lifestyle choices, such as recycling, energy conservation, water conservation, and so on.

Botanic gardens should also set environmental behaviour standards by example:

When community conservation education is considered to be an intrinsic component of botanic gardens conservation programmes, then success in the vital race to protect biodiversity is a possibility. I hope for the sake of the planet, all gardens and their education staff, with their communities, join the rescue team.

The Royal Tasmania Botanical Gardens's Conservation Programme

The following information relates to the Royal Tasmania Botanical Gardens (RTBG). I hope it will show that no matter how small we are (with a size of 3 acres and a budget of less than Aus$1 000 000) we can all perform an important role. By tackling the plants at home we hope we are having a beneficial effect on biodiversity generally.

The Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG) hold a collection of Tasmania species, including some of those at risk, and many species are grown in major botanic gardens in the United Kingdom (such as Kew and Edinburgh). Due to a period of gardening fashion last century, some Tasmania species also feature in home gardens in the UK. The task before us is still a large one, but step by step we are tackling it.

In 1990 the Gardens held only twelve native threatened species in its living collection. A Tasmania Section has since been established in the Gardens. This is the first concerted effort to display native Tasmania species since the early 1800s. The area is small, but contains a cross-section of Tasmania species displayed in habitat types. Visitors are able to walk from the highlands of the State through the rain-forests to the coast, in a distance of 100 metres. The Section displays in excess of 350 different species, some 53 of which are rare, vulnerable or endangered. That is a substantial increase on the 1990 figures in the representation of species at risk. All plants in the Section are provenanced, using a system of recording compatible to that used at the Australian National Botanic Gardens, and records are shared with other gardens through the Australian Network for Plant Conservation.

The public-awareness aspect of a living collection is the strong point of our ex situ collection. A large percentage of the 325 000 people who visit the Gardens each year will encounter the Tasmania Section. Much of Tasmania is very difficult to visit. Therefore it is equally as difficult to visit an endangered species in the wild. The Tasmania Section allows people to meet an endangered species regardless of their physical ability.

The site has been developed to highlight the issues associated with species conservation generally, as well as providing information about the individual species displayed.

Because of the limitation of space at the present Garden site, we are unable to create a garden that can be considered useful as a genetic bank on its own, because it cannot hold a sufficiently wide genetic sample. But in cooperation with other land-managing authorities, for example councils, schools, and in some cases individuals, we are hoping to collectively create collections of significant conservation value, that is, a large number of genetically diverse specimens.

For example, two schools have recently completed a joint project as part of our Threatened Species in Schools Program, to create an ex situ collection of the threatened species Eucalyptus risdonii. The students of Blackmans Bay Primary School collected seeds from the wild, germinated them, grew them up and then, with the help of students at the Rudolf Steiner School, planted the resultant 100 seedlings in the Steiner School grounds adjacent to a local council flora park. This collection is now recorded at the Royal Tasmania Botanical Gardens on a school-planting database. Six other schools have now adopted the Risdon peppermint and are working on creating similar school collections of the species.

We now have a regular collecting and propagating programme. General collections are made for the Tasmania Section. From the material collected more than 200 species have been successfully propagated from cuttings and seeds.

We have made a start on the collection and propagation of some of our species at most risk including: Carex tasmanica (nationally endangered, with 10 small populations in Tasmania), Ranunculus prasinus (a Tasmania endemic reduced to two populations of less than 200 plants), Phebalium daviesii (which has a total wild population of just 5 plants, located in a small patch of remnant forest on farmland, and was listed as 'presumed extinct' until rediscovered in 1990), and Danthonia popinensis (a grass restricted to a roadside verge of about 200 metres length). Work with these species is specifically aimed at producing material suitable for reintroduction as part of species recovery plans.

The species recovery plans are being coordinated through a group called the Endangered Plants Recovery Committee, which was initiated and is convened by the Royal Tasmania Botanical Gardens, but draws members from the Department of Parks Wildlife and Heritage, Forestry Commission, City Councils, the University of Tasmania Plant Sciences and Environmental Studies Departments, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWFN) and other conservation groups.

The committee provides expertise and effort from a wide range of fields. Funding has been provided by the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Unit, through the Department of Parks Wildlife and Heritage. Recovery teams, convened by the Department of Parks Wildlife and Heritage, have now been formed and work is progressing toward reintroductions of a number of the species mentioned. Community education and involvement are part of all the recovery plans.

We are now working as contractors for the Department of Roads and Transport. In situations where endangered species are threatened by new road works, and realignment is not possible, we are called in to remove and/or propagate the species for return to a suitable site nearby once roadworks are completed. Rescue plans are written for each case. Our first rescue involved Eryngium ovinum, endangered in Tasmania and thought to be restricted to one site on the east coast. Searches carried out as part of the rescue found two other significant populations. Involvement of community groups such as the Friends of the Gardens and the Society for Growing Australian Plants is under consideration for replanting time.

We have also been involved in a project funded by the WWFN to restore the habitat of an endangered bird species, the forty spotted pardalote. The forty spotted pardalote is endemic to Tasmania with a present total population of 2500 birds. They are totally dependent on the presence of Eucalyptus viminalis, manna gum. This tree has suffered severely as a result of forest clearing for farming. We have grown 2500 manna gums which, as part of an environmental awareness programme led by a project officer employed by the Department of Parks Wildlife and Heritage, have been given to landowners to plant as shelter belts, thereby extending and restoring habitat for the birds without having to create reserves. Reaction and support for this project have been extremely positive. Work has been carried out with school students, who have also sown seeds of manna gums and planted seedlings in their school grounds.

The RTBG has a very constructive role to play in these species recovery and habitat restoration programmes. Like all botanic gardens, it has the facilities and skills to undertake productive propagation research and cultivation. It has strong established links with the community and therefore a large education audience. It now has a commitment to native species conservation and conservation education.

Just to balance out the doomsday list given for Australia earlier in this presentation - there are a number of organisations funded by our Federal Government that have community education and involvement as their prime objective. Greening Australia - including their Greening Schools Programme and the One Billion Trees Project, Save the Bush (as in Forest), Landcare - including Landcare for Children in a number of States, all aim to rectify deforestation by actively involving farmer groups, school children and community groups in environmental repair projects. Rotary in Australia and internationally have two major projects underway -"Trees for Survival" and "Preserve Planet Earth" and, apart from promoting and encouraging environmental action, they have also donated 600 shade houses to schools and community groups around the country in the couple of years since the programmes were started. The Society for Growing Australian Plants recently adopted a national commitment to environmental education. A national biodiversity conservation strategy has been drafted by the Commonwealth Department of the Environment, Arts, Sport and Recreation. The Australian Network for Plant Conservation has been established and is being coordinated by the Australian National Botanic Gardens. Non-government conservation groups are also doing their bit, as are State government conservation and environment departments.

So Australian gardens are not working alone, but we do have particular skills and knowledge to bring to the work, and we have a particular audience to deliver the message to.

There are many pathways to environmental enlightenment. Our education programme uses a multitude of methods in the pursuit of promoting conservation awareness:

A number of teaching kits highlight various themes of environmental education related to the Gardens and plant conservation.

Adults can come along to an Endangered Species Propagation Workshop, visit an endangered species in the wild and be involved in reintroduction/recovery projects.

Seminars are conducted for teachers, parents and trainee teachers.

Interpretive publications and signs , displays and audiovisuals highlight the need for all people to be involved in plant conservation.

'January in the Gardens', a month of activities for adults, including propagation workshops and field trips, is offered each year, and lectures are given at local community organisations and gardening society meetings.

We are involved in the revival of Arbor Week in Tasmania, with an emphasis on knowing, growing, planting and protecting indigenous species. An Arbor Week Picnic was held in the Gardens in September, attracting over 2000 schoolchildren who were involved in a variety of activities, including storytelling, dance and musical events and planting the endangered Carex tasmanica (curley sedge) on the Domain Reserve adjacent to the Gardens.

Our Friends of the Gardens are involved in caring for our collection of native plants for reintroduction programmes and habitat restoration projects. They have access to the living collection, native and exotic, to propagate plants to sell and raise funds for the Garden. They are also involved in trialling native species for use in home gardens.

We hope that, at the end of the process, all those who have been involved will better understand what is going on, their responsibilities, their ability to contribute directly to correcting past mistakes, and will actually have been involved in environmental action and then, as a result, will choose to live more lightly on the Earth to the benefit of all the species that share the planet.


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